Efren Carrillo steps away from Sonoma County Board of Supervisors into uncertain future

Efren Carrillo says he has tried to become a better man since he was arrested in 2013 outside a terrified woman's apartment. The onetime rising star in the Democratic Party says he will look for new ways to engage in community causes.|

Redemption isn't easy, especially for politicians who self-destruct in an explosive mix of alcohol, lust and unbridled self-importance.

And yet, that was the task at hand for Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo after his late-night arrest in 2013 outside a terrified woman's apartment.

The first Latino elected to countywide office was acquitted in a spectacular criminal trial in which he admitted flaws fueled by drinking and newfound power.

He refused to step down, resolving instead to complete his term, putting his head down and a shoulder to his work.

Nearly four years later, after a productive 12 months as board chairman, the fallen supervisor is leaving office with the hope that he has made amends.

“I've tried everything I can since that to be a better person and a better man. That doesn't stop, coming out of office,” said the 35-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, once a rising star in Democratic Party politics.

Carrillo, who is engaged and is raising two young boys, faces an uncertain future as he leaves the post ­­- which pays more than $150,000 a year - he has held nearly a quarter of his young life. His last meeting is Tuesday.

An early supporter of Sonoma Clean Power and champion of Roseland annexation, Carrillo hopes to work in renewable energy or land-use consulting. He says he's received offers, which he would not identify, but has yet to decide on an exact path.

David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political science professor, said someone with Carrillo's background could expect a job in business or government that taps his policy experience while touting his life lessons.

Stories of redemption are “deep in American politics” so Carrillo could have a chance to add his own chapter, McCuan said.

Less likely is a return to elective office, although it's not totally out of the question.

“Is a political comeback possible?” McCuan said. “Perhaps. As time passes, memories wane, old battles can resurrect themselves. But when you are as gifted about politics and reaching out as Efren is, you can overcome that.”

He added: “But this will not be without risk or peril. His opponents will salivate at the chance to challenge him through the ballot box.”

Just whether voters in Carrillo's 5th District have forgiven him is unclear. Many of his critics remain outspoken about their disappointment in his behavior and their ongoing lack of trust.

Sebastopol activist Alice Chan, who in 2013 called Carrillo's continued presence on the board an “embarrassment to us and Sonoma County,” said she won't ever excuse such poor judgment from an elected official charged with great responsibilities.

“I'm glad he is no longer going to be my representative,” Chan said.

But fellow board members who once demanded his resignation believe he has made up for his mistakes through hard work, focus and a demonstrated commitment to his constituents.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Carrillo was humbled by the experience and forced to reexamine his life, making him a better person and a better public servant.

“I think he did redeem himself,” Zane said. “Being a leader is not about being perfect. It's about being flawed and recognizing the flaws.”

Carrillo would not rule out a future run but said it was not something he's considering now. Instead, he said he plans to stay involved in community affairs at a grass-roots level while focusing on family.

“This is not the end of public service for me,” Carrillo said. “I will make that clear. I do believe there is a particular calling for me.”

Built a political legacy

Personal problems aside, Carrillo has shown a knack for getting things done since he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2008 at age 27. The 5th District encompasses west Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast.

The second-youngest supervisor in county history has been a leading advocate for the county's green power agency, which opened in 2014 and has become the dominant supplier of electricity. He also has been a champion of universal preschool and open space protection, brokering many of the top land deals using taxpayer dollars. He was involved in thorny land-use disputes over gravel mines and vineyard conversion projects, often siding with more moderate, business-friendly colleagues.

His legacy also will include progress in the annexation of Roseland, a mostly poor pocket of unincorporated southwest Santa Rosa that has been overlooked by city services. Earlier this year, he helped usher in a historic cost-sharing agreement covering it and four other county islands that will improve roads and emergency services.

It was the neighborhood where Carrillo grew up in a house built for low-income residents by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. The grandson of farmworkers, Carrillo graduated from Santa Rosa High School and UC Berkeley, getting his degree in environmental economics and policy. He returned to Santa Rosa to work for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board and Redwood Credit Union before running for office. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2008 and ran for re-election in June 2012, winning by a wide margin. As a promising Latino, he was expected by many to go far in politics, almost certainly to the state Capitol.

But by summer's end, Carrillo's world was starting to unravel over what would later be described as problems with binge drinking and a runaway ego.

On Labor Day weekend, he was arrested in a fight outside a San Diego nightclub during a trip south with friends. Prosecutors dropped battery charges against Carrillo, a black belt in karate, who said he was coming to the aid of a woman being harassed by strangers.

He was arrested again 10 months later after going to his neighbor's apartment at 3:30 a.m. to try to have sex with her. Police summoned by the startled woman, who testified someone stuck a hand through her bedroom window, found Carrillo, half-dressed, walking nearby.

He was booked on suspicion of burglary and prowling with intent to commit sexual assault but was later charged by a special state prosecutor with misdemeanor peeking. He went into rehab after posting bail and remained out of the public eye for about five weeks before returning to take a seat on the puzzled board.

At his 2014 trial, Carrillo took the witness stand, admitting problems with drinking and an outsized view of himself, which he said he thought women shared.

“I felt like I was at the top of the world,” Carrillo said in candid testimony that impressed jurors. “I was a young county official.”

But he insisted he never intended to rape his neighbor.

The 10-woman, two-man panel wrestled with a verdict, deadlocking on whether he actually tried to look into the neighbor's apartment and ultimately finding him not guilty of the lesser charge of attempted peeking. A civil lawsuit filed by the woman is pending. It seeks $2.5 million in damages.

In his first board meeting after his acquittal, Carrillo underwent an epic public shaming in which constituents and fellow board members lined up to demand his resignation.

Among those to call for his voluntary ouster was then-Supervisor Mike McGuire, who later that year was elected to the state Senate - a seat once considered within Carrillo's reach.

However, Carrillo responded to the firestorm by declaring he had no intention of leaving. Instead, he pledged to work on his alcohol problem while continuing the job he was elected to do.

A recall drive never materialized.

More than three years later, McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat representing the 2nd Senate District, said the board was rightfully concerned about Carrillo. But he said his former colleague has lived up to promises to change his life and has since worked hard to serve voters.

“The bottom line is Supervisor Carrillo can look back at his tenure on the board and know that he made a difference for the residents of the west county and some of the most vulnerable in our community,” McGuire said.

‘Event led me to dig deep'

For his part, Carrillo said the experience forced a personal transformation in which he has remained sober.

Sitting at a Roseland taqueria, his 14-month-old son, Maximiliano, on his lap, Carrillo called his 2013 arrest the “two-by-four over the head that was necessary.”

“That event led me to dig deep,” Carrillo said. “And dig deep in a way I've never dug before. It's definitely a place I never want to be.”

He went through residential and outpatient alcohol rehab for a drinking problem he said began in high school and continued in college. He apologized, both publicly and privately, to colleagues and constituents. He wouldn't detail ongoing work on his sobriety except to say, “I'm in active recovery in the sense that I'm not drinking.”

He said he knew expectations would be high when he returned to the board. After being passed over for chairman in 2014, he devoted himself to regaining trust and was appointed the board's ceremonial leader in January.

“I knew I was going to have to produce the best work of my career,” he said.

Did he redeem himself?

“I hope so,” he said. “I hoped to regain the trust of the board and constituents. I hope they feel at least I reached their standard.”

Not long after becoming chairman, Carrillo announced he wouldn't seek a third term.

It was a difficult but not totally unexpected decision. Some local Latino leaders said the county's highest-ranking Latino elected official would be missed.

Lisa Carreño, regional director of the nonprofit 10,000 Degrees Sonoma County, said Carrillo raised the profile of Latino issues while showing the rest of the community their interests were intertwined.

“His departure leaves a major void,” said Carreño, who was on the editorial board of The Press Democrat when the newspaper called on Carrillo to resign.

She said Carrillo has since regained her trust with a deliberation toward his work that has been like a “healing meditation.”

“We all make mistakes and we each deserve a second chance,” Carreño said. “He has made a far better life for himself with that second chance.”

Herman J. Hernandez, a longtime Carrillo supporter and founder of Los Cien, a group of local Latino leaders, said Carrillo was an inspiration to other Latinos seeking office. The rise of a new crop of Latino leaders to city councils and school boards will make Carrillo's absence a bit easier.

“There's no doubt about it, when Efren took the first step to run, it opened a lot of eyes,” Hernandez said. “It definitely opened my eyes. He inspired me. He energized me. He created a vision.”

Anticipating family time

Meanwhile, Carrillo will soon be packing up his small office in the county government center. The bright red soccer jersey from Mexican star Chicharito will come down. Carrillo won it in a fundraiser for car crash victims. An ink drawing of labor leader Cesar Chavez on his desk will be put away.

Photos and mementos from eight years of public service will go into boxes to make way for his replacement, Forestville organic farmer Lynda Hopkins.

Carrillo said he'll miss the work. Looking over his keepsakes, he reflected on satisfaction with helping people and being able to shape county policy. He also commented on what could have been. His arrests came as at least two posts opened in the state Legislature.

“Some say politics is all about timing,” Carrillo said. “You always see yourself in a position to have greater influence or have greater participation where important decisions are made.”

Now, he'll have more time with his family. His fiancée, Yolanda Alvarez, stuck with Carrillo through the tumult, showing up in the courtroom regularly to support him during the trial. They welcomed their son, Maximiliano, in October 2015 and are raising her boy from a previous relationship, Matias, whom Carrillo introduces as his son. The 7-year-old is following Carrillo's interest in martial arts, he said.

And Carrillo is planning to stay connected in his spare time to things like housing and education.

“The mere fact I won't have an official title and am not an elected official will not change the fact that I care about this community and I will get involved in it some way,” Carrillo said. “I'm not going to shy away from getting involved and engaging in community causes that are important to me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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